Climate Change on Paper

By Jennifer Vess, Brooke Dolan Archivist

Many people view archives solely as sources for history books, but the archives of science institutions are increasingly being recognized as gold mines of information for the study of climate change. The field journals of scientists from the 19th and early 20th centuries are particularly useful for this kind of investigation. Not all field journals are the same, and they offer scientists a wide range of data.

Many journals in the Academy collections cover a few days or a few weeks of an expedition—a short-term view of a location. The species that a scientist saw at a given time in a given place (sometimes including many plants and animals, sometimes focusing on just one type) can be compared with those species scientists see today in that same place. What species are still present? What species have disappeared? What species do they find now that their predecessors did not?

Other field journals have nothing to do with exotic expeditions. Some scientists kept journals that focused on a single place—often very close to where they lived and worked—over a longer stretch of time. The earliest example of this in the Academy’s Archives can be found in the William Bartram Papers (Coll. 407).

William Bartram (1739–1823) was an early American naturalist and artist born in Philadelphia. As a child he traveled into the field with his father, merchant and scientist John Bartram (1699–1777), to collect plants and animals. William Bartram is known for his book Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, a significant classification of the flora and fauna of the American South. His work was widely read in Europe at the time and inspired British poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

For 20 years (1802–1822), Bartram kept a diary of the happenings around his garden (the Bartram’s Garden of today). His entries can run as short as the one from January 7, 1818, which reads: “Morning cloudy. Mild. Ther. [thermometer] 40.” Or slightly longer, as on January 3, 1802: “Cloudy no frost light showers…frogs are heard whistling wind.”Bartram Papers

He frequently offered even more detail. On April 15, 1803, he wrote: “Cherrys Plums + Pears in Flower. Morning misty. Wind N.E. began to rain about noon when a density of the atmosphere was so great that it became almost necessary to Light Candles to dine by + shortly afterwards, the Wind + rain increasing became a tempestous [sic] evening.”

Bartram recorded temperatures, the appearance of frosts, the days when plants first sprouted, and the movements of animals. He included common names for animals as well as their scientific names when he knew them. With his records, and the records of other scientists, we can begin to see how our environment has changed.

The William Bartram Papers serve as only one example of how archives remain relevant and can inform current scholarship or sciences. While archives continue to be used, and will always be used, for the writing of history books, researchers continue to find new applications for the information they provide.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Academy Frontiers

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